Of impetuous Jesuits, a plastic cleaning spray bottle and the Passion
Why one should not avoid churches in one’s home country (even when childhood-memories object)
“Mais on se croirait en Italie – toutes ces églises qui renferment tant de trésors d’art, tant d’histoire! ”(* EN below) - so I overheard some years ago an elderly French lady whispering excitedly to her husband in the cathedral of Antwerp.
And I must confess that I myself too have first travelled to Italy, to France, to Germany, ... to stand there in awe of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque churches, before it ever crossed my mind to go and see their counterparts closer to home. These ‘domestic’ churches were perhaps too tainted by unhappy associations with the hours of boredom spent as a child in Sunday mass, feeling oppressed by the heavy wooden culprits and confessionals and the nauseating smell of incense drifting in a small town baroque church. And, back then, what was I to make from the outrageous altar painting showing fat babies twirling around a garish scene of a swords man slaughtering a frightened woman (1)?
Fortunately, my love of art history has since much widened my appreciation of the many different forms & meanings which the human imagination can spawn. And while the basic chords of my own sensibility are rather attuned to contemplative gravitas and sober harmonies, I can now also admire the turmoil of Baroque art, in which formerly static classical forms so splendidly reach a boiling point (2) . And no need to go to Rome to be swept away by the histrionics of Jesuit propaganda. Also in the (now) drowsy little town of Malines/Mechelen (3), you can savour the full visual splendour of the Jesuit missionary zeal in the saints Peter and Paul church (4). And then there is the Jesuit “heaven on earth” in Antwerp: the Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk / St Charles Borromeo’s church with its magnificent high altar, where the theatrical genius of the Jesuits has even conceived of a cunning system allowing the altar paintings to alternate, in keeping with the religious theme of the season. (5)
A sulking pagan aesthete begrudges worshippers their yellow narcissuses
But I suppose that this appreciation of the religious art & architecture of churches qua temporal art only, must be a source of annoyance and grief for the few remaining faithful in our low countries. Consider their fate after 2000 years of history: outnumbered by pagan tourists tramping about with guidebooks & cameras in their holy places of worship, during religious service huddles together in conspicuously outsized spaces, still hardly sustained by the surrounding magnificent visuality. Ah, the poignancy of this humbled contemporary religious practice! How emblematic, those few dozens of plastic chairs I noticed in the cathedral of Tournai ... worshippers confined to a space fenced off by ugly gas heaters and makeshift chipboards (6).
And elsewhere, in those monumental churches with their grand history, the heart-rending pettiness of it all: peeling feel-good posters with cloyingly sentimental slogans, pathetic attempts to contemporary decorations and language, the pottering about with vases filled with homely yellow flowers – so puny & banal in those huge spaces. Or so I gloomily mused while visiting on Holy Saturday the famous Antwerp church of St. James. It was somehow disappointingly sombre, with the sun hiding behind the clouds, the walls so dull and grey, and the high altar and Rubens chapel just then closed to visitors (tourist visits obviously being curtailed in preparation of the Easter-service).
While thus grumbling & sulking (beware the ire of ascetic aesthetes who are being denied their portion of high art ecstasy!) I reluctantly toured the remaining parts of the church and suddenly stood face to face with a small kitschy Madonna statue in a folkloristic dress. Set on a small pedestal, she smiled benevolently, surrounded by fresh yellow narcissuses, and with a big plastic cleaning spray bottle standing guard behind her . I instantly felt deeply ashamed to have judged so harshly the unsophisticated efforts of people lovingly tending to what they value . Haven’t Catholics been bashed enough (7) – nowadays often with an unsavoury glee, like a collective spitting on anything or anyone aspiring to something beyond the fulfilment of material needs. And as grumpy & unsentimental & atheist & art-elitist as I might be, didn’t I much rather wander about here, among the naive yellow flowers in a chilly church, instead of having to brave the unbridled consumerism in the nearby gaudy shopping streets?
“Positive psychology” or the Passion?
And instead of reading cooking books or “wellness” & “positive psychology” books (8) , didn’t I much rather explore the captivating history of the human imagination, our “Geistesgeschichte”, be it as a history of art forms or even as a history of theological significations (9)? And so it was with loving concentration that during the Easter-weekend I read “The Passion in Art” , written by Richard Harries, an English bishop, in the series of “Ashgate Studies in Theology, Imagination and the Arts”. (10) However, I fear the bishop might not approve of my mindset which is one that interprets everything in terms of the human, all too human, quest for meaning and consolation and transcendence beyond “this vale of tears”. In the Passion story I thus see the crucifixion as a deeply moving, universal human tragedy, with the resurrection an expression of the human longing for redemption of unredeemable sufferings.
These qualifications made, I admit being fascinated by this Christian theological possibility of “showing Christ dead on the Cross, indicating that he was indeed fully human, going through a death as ours”. (11) In the book the erudite art-loving bishop quotes a tenth century priest who pithily and movingly resumes the theological “divinity ànd humanity” Passion - doctrine :
“From his assumption of humanity, he was affected by fasts, overcome with sleep, oppressed by insults and jeers, bound, taken captive, scourged, cuffed round his ears, held in derision, crucified at the end, pierced with a lance, kept down for a space [of time] by death, buried, and then on the third day, having conquered death, he was raised again. This we confess by our catholic faith” (12)
How outrageous in fact, showing even a God as weak and suffering, inspiring pity, promising mercy for us poor sinners. How far removed from the Antique gods, both mischievous and stern, with their utter indifference to the fate of mere mortals, how opposed to the ideals of stoic heroism of classical antiquity! Having grown older, sadder and milder I now tend to see this evolution towards pity, tolerance and empathy as progress. (Obviously no longer railing together with Nietzsche against a sentimentalist 'slave-moral').
A grumbling conclusion
How to conclude this Easter post? Not with a joyous declaration of faith – I remain as atheist as I ever was. But with a brooding interrogation – we may have gained enormously in scientific understanding and technological prowess, we can think more freely than ever, released from the shackles of stale, worn out traditions – but how come then that we (“we” – “on average”, ” in majority”) are so utterly shallow, almost frantically avoiding to think or to reflect about our human condition? Who, say in a thousand years time, will ever bother to read all our cooking and wellness books which seem to reflect our current main spiritual occupations.
The tolling of Easter-notes
(*) "But this feels like Italy! All those churches, full of art treasures and with such rich history!"
(1) so at least I seem to remember this outrageous altar painting depicting a martyrdom of Saint Barbara (according to an amateur Web-page I found)
(2) “émotion et mouvement à tout prix” – Jacob Burckhardt
(3) Malines / Mechelen – Margaret of Austria once ruled the whole of the Netherlands from there!
(4) you also may encounter there the four (then known) continents being represented by exotic figures and “savages” and be taught, in 10 instructive scenes, the tasks of Jesuit missionaries travelling around the world
(5) ok this provisional set-up was due to the Tournai cathedral being restored, but even allowing for that, the worshippers could not ever fill the vast nave.
(6) “To fulfil its role as an eye-catcher the painting above the high altar can be replaced. This change can be effected by a unique mechanism installed by the Antwerp Jesuits. Behind the altar immense slots have been placed to accommodate four paintings. A painting is placed into position by means of a hoist, according to the theme needed in the liturgical calendar.” See http://www.topa.be/site/709.html
(7) My ambivalence towards all things religious has already been discussed elsewhere on this blog. There’s religion’s suspicion of rational human reasoning, there's its immense oppressiveness once it has become a totalitarian system imposing its immutable doctrines and crushing all “heretics” and minorities. But on the other hand – religions are the age old repositories of much of human thinking about morality, the world and the human condition. It has inspired the deepest, most subtle meditations and the kindest of commiserating acts just as it has alas led to the crudest, most crushing of dogma’s and the cruellest of tortures.
(8) In an online Belgian/Flemish Non-fiction books top 10, I today counted 7 cooking books, 2 wellness books and, oh dear, 1 political essay
(9) Whether one stares at the swarming figures and scenes in those religious “ mirrors of nature, learning, morals and history” which the Gothic cathedrals truly are , or whether one finds oneself dumbfounded by the twisting and turning intricacies of mediaeval scholastic thought - it is both awe-inspiring and incomprehensible how much human energy and ingenuity has gone into theological constructs and interpretations. Not to mention how much animosity these have spawned, and how much blood has been shed to defend them. All for nought? Not from a humanistic point of view – “records of human thought do not age” ...
(10) A book I stumbled upon in the bookshop Procopius (in Louvain) : a soothingly sober bookshop with an unsurpassed offer of slightly off-beat but great “human documents”. Where else can you pick up, in a single short browsing session, a reprint of a Victorian socio-biological book on “evolution and ethics”, a thorough study of the "Passion in Art" and a National Gallery catalogue of Northern Renaissance painters? Heartfelt thanks go to LH for having pointed out the Procopius bookshop to me.
(11) The Resurrection is of course a glorious victory over death and in his book the bishop keeps insisting on the fact that Crucifixion and Resurrection always have to be seen together. He also very eruditely explains why the first depictions of Christ on the Cross were made only around 420 AD, and even then showing “no defeated Christ: his eyes are open and head upright”. The initial reluctance to images of the crucifixion would be due to the fact that “The crucifixion was, quite simply, a form of public execution, a horrible judicial torture. To an onlooker, crucifixion conveyed not only agony but disgrace. [...] Emperor Constantine abolished crucifixion as a form of public execution when he became a Christian some time after 312” . But still, there’s no denying that over the centuries the “Christ-suffering-on-the-Cross” has become the most powerful Christian symbol, not withstanding the also rich iconography of the Resurrection - mostly scenes of humans witnessing an empty grave or a Christ returned, because it’s rather hard of course to depict something as transcendentally transformational as a Resurrection! (Though perhaps the images of the Harrowing of Hell come closest? )
(12) Reads as the ‘libretto’ of Bach's Matthaeus passion ...